Reality principles

Tired of management gurus and their latest fads and fixes?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Despite the image of a starburst or something similar that adorns its cover, Rosemary Stewart's new book, The Reality of Management, does not immediately come across as dramatic or inspiring. After all, that title conjures up images of days of studying spreadsheets and other minutiae broken only by the occasional quick burst of sackings.

But that would be to underestimate it greatly. The book, just published by Buterworth-Heinemann, is not really new at all, but in fact that third edition of a volume that first appeared in the 1960s. Though there is a certain amount of updating to take in such matters as the arrival of information technology and the declining structure of organisations, it is documentary evidence for the thesis that - for all the talk of change - management now is pretty much the same as it has always been.

Dr Stewart has spent many years - most recently at Templeton College, Oxford - researching what managers actually do, and is particularly known for her work on the somewhat controversial role of those in the National Health Service (see below). Much of the book takes in the information produced by these studies. For example, in the space of a page of text she sums up the arguments for and against detailed job descriptions. "Detailed job descriptions will be supported by those who believe in the virtues of order and control," she writes. "The other approach [leaving the scope up to the individual] will be favoured by those who emphasise initiative and flexibility. The relative importance of these priorities will vary with the purposes and current position of the organisation."

Now, admittedly, that is a lot more equivocal than the sort of thing you have come to expect from many of the management writers who have come along since Tom Peters demonstrated how much money and fame there was in the guru business. To hear them tell it, there are only two types of organisation - those which are doomed to failure and those which are following or epitomising whatever nostrum - customer service, quality, continuous innovation etc - that they are pushing at that moment.

But while these fads come and go, Dr Stewart has distilled the essential truths of management. And that is where the title of the best known of her dozen books comes from; she is telling it as it really is. In describing what is happening in all sorts of organisations and assessing the impact of various theories, she is demonstrating her awareness that - despite the assertion that not much has changed - it is terribly complex out there. Though the prose style is rather dry and the text is mercifully free of matrices and other diagrams, she makes a forceful case.

This partly comes from her willingness to touch on areas that are frequently left alone, even at a time when delayering and other trends seem to be laying many organisations open to scandal. For example, there is a brief section on "moral stamina" in which she states that the "temptation to be liked and to be seen as a nice person may make the manager unwilling to talk frankly with staff or with colleagues ... A lesson that some people have learned, sometimes too late, is that many people would prefer greater frankness about how they are doing and what are their career prospects than their boss thinks they can accept." She then quotes the guru's guru, Peter Drucker, on the importance of developing such stamina among subordinates. A manager, he says, strengthens their integrity or corrupts them, trains them to stand upright and strong or deforms them.

By coming up with a book that even in its third incarnation is peppered with questions of the genuine, rather than rhetorical, variety, Dr Stewart has performed a great service. And if a new generation of managers stumbling across this book are persuaded that it is not necessarily possible to draw an analogy between, say, British Steel and their local corner shop, then so much the bettern

Comments